One of the more famous passages in Hegel's philosophy is

"When philosophy paints its gray on gray, then has a form of life grown old, and with gray on gray it cannot be rejuvenated, but only known; the Owl of Minerva first takes flight with twilight closing in." (Philosophy of Right)

Here's the German original:

Um noch über das Belehren, wie die Welt sein soll, ein Wort zu sagen, so kommt dazu ohnehin die Philosophie immer zu spät. Als der Gedanke der Welt erscheint sie erst in der Zeit, nachdem die Wirklichkeit ihren Bildungsprozeß vollendet und sich fertig gemacht hat. Dies, was der Begriff lehrt, zeigt notwendig ebenso die Geschichte, daß erst in der Reife der Wirklichkeit das Ideale dem Realen gegenüber erscheint und jenes sich dieselbe Welt, in ihrer Substanz erfaßt, in Gestalt eines intellektuellen Reichs erbaut. Wenn die Philosophie ihr Grau in Grau malt, dann ist eine Gestalt des Lebens alt geworden, und mit Grau in Grau läßt sie sich nicht verjüngen, sondern nur erkennen; die Eule der Minerva beginnt erst mit der einbrechenden Dämmerung ihren Flug.

I have been reading a lot of secondary literature while writing papers and there seem to be two basic interpretive streams regarding this comment.

Some authors suggest that this is a future event that has not yet happened (like Jon Stewart in Kierkegaard's Relation to Hegel Reconsidered -- pagination omitted but he uses this not-yet interpretation in at least two arguments there to suggest Hegel is not committed to things Kierkegaard disagrees with).

other authors interpret Hegel as believing it was happening in his time (See for instance, this answer by Thomas Pogge, Mark Alznaeur's "Hegel's Theory of Normativity" p. 206-207).

My question specifically is if we have any knowledge from Hegel or a nearby source that would definitively settle the question of whether Hegel thought he was living in the era of the owl or not?

(I realize this relates in part to left and right Hegelianism, but my question is whether Hegel himself believed he lived in or before this era with some sort of definitive sourcing).

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    As I do not have the time at hand to back with sources right now only a short interpretational comment: The German original clearly does nothing more than making the point that knowledge [Erkenntnis] is only possible about what had become beforehand, as only in opposition of the real to the ideal, thought can become knowledge. This is a theoretically supported, categorical claim that I naturally read as permeating through history. With metaphorical language so typical of him. Everything else is over-interpretation imho. – Philip Klöcking Jul 13 '17 at 18:00

I am not sure how to prove a negative, it is unlikely that we will have it in Hegel's own words that he did not live at the end times. But the idea that Hegel saw his time as "the end of history" is not supported by modern scholarship. Dale in Hegel, Evil, and the End of History traces the fable back to none other than Nietzsche, namely to his Untimely Meditations:

History understood in [the] Hegelian manner has been mockingly called God’s sojourn on earth, though the god referred to has been created only by history. This god, however, became transparent and comprehensible to himself inside Hegelian craniums and has already ascended all the dialectically possible steps of his evolution to this self-revelation: so that for Hegel the climax and terminus of the world-process coincided with his own Berlin existence...

Indeed, [Hegel] ought to have said that everything that came after him was properly to be considered merely as a musical coda to the world-historical rondo or, even more properly, as superfluous... instead he implanted into the generation thoroughly leavened by him that admiration for the ‘power of history’ which in practice transforms every moment into a naked admiration for success and leads to an idolatry of the factual.” [emphasis added by Dale]

According to Dale, Nietzsche’s “idolatry of the factual” alludes to “was vernünftig ist, das ist wirklich; und was wirklich ist, das ist vernünftig” in the Philosophy of Right, from which the Owl of Minerva also flies. But in fairness, Nietzsche explicitly describes Hegel as not saying what he "ought to have said", and even faults him for it.

As if Nietzsche’s scorn was not enough, the fable got additional boost after the Second World War. This part is traced in The Hegel Myths and Legends, a collection of essays edited by the above mentioned Jon Stewart, which has three, by Grier, Maurer and Harris, on "the end of history" specifically. The last two are well-known Hegel scholars, and Maurer even wrote a whole book Hegel und das Ende der Geschichte analyzing various meanings of "the end of history" and their applicability to Hegel.

"In France the lectures at the Sorbonne in the 1930s delivered by the Russian emigre Alexandre Kojève represent without a doubt the key event in French Hegel studies. Kojève’s provocative, yet at times fully misguided, interpretation was the main source of information about Hegel’s philosophy for the entire postwar generation of French intellectuals. The key figures of French phenomenology, existentialism, and Marxism, such as Raymond Aron, Maurice Merleau-Ponty, Georges Bataille, and Jacques Lacan, were all present at Kojève’s lectures and later developed the interpretation of Hegel that they received there in various directions in accordance with their own research programs...

Kojève seems to have borrowed heavily from the work of his fellow emigre, Alexandre Koyré, primarily with respect to the latter’s emphasis on Hegel’s purported claims about the end of history. These claims found clear affinities in the teleology of Marxist theory, where Kojève was most at home. The view that Hegel saw the end of history in his own time or with his own philosophical system has had its most widespread acceptance in France due to the influence of these two men. Although in the literature these problematic views have long since been corrected and revised by more thorough French Hegel scholars such as Hyppolite and Labarriére, nonetheless in the popular mind they are still quite pervasive."

Of course, the most recent burst of Owl's popularity is due to Fukuyama's The End of History and the Last Man, to which David Brooks, whose mention of the Owl prompted Pogge's answer, is likely indebted. And which in turn is traceable to... Kojève and Koyré, as Grier argues. If indeed Hegel had hopes of historical finality they were shaken by the French July revolution of 1830. On December 13 he wrote to his pupil Goeschel:

"At present the enormous interest of politics has swallowed up all others – a crisis in which everything previously dependable seems to become problematic. So little can philosophy stand up to the uncertainty, violence, and evil passions of this great unrest, I hardly think that it can penetrate into those circles which rest so easily..." [quoted from Löwith's From Hegel to Nietzsche, p.28]

Not unlike Fukuyama's change of heart. Löwith has a long discussion of Hegel's "eschatology" and its historical context.

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    Good enough I guess. I will read the articles in the volume Stewart edited soon. – virmaior Jul 17 '17 at 8:06

Conifold's answer provides value insight and a case for why Hegel may not think he is at the end of history.

There is evidence, however, to make the opposite case as well.

In the hard struggle between these two realms - whose difference has now reached the stage of absolute opposition, despite the fact that both are rooted in a single unity and Idea - the spiritual realm brings the existence [Existenz] of its heaven down to earth in this world/ to the ordinary secularity of actuality and representational thought. The secular realm, on the other hand, develops its abstract being-for-itself to the level of thought and to the principle of rational being and knowing, i.e. to the rationality of right and law. As a result, their opposition has faded away in itsef and become an insubstantial shape. The present has cast off its barbarism and unjust [unrechliche] arbitrariness, and truth has cast off its otherworldliness and contingent force, so that the true reconciliation, which reveals the state as the image and actuality of reason, has become objective. ... Philosophy of Right (Nisbet translation).

In German,

Indem -- in dem harten Kampfe dieser im Unterschiede der hier seine absolute Entgegensetzung gewonnen, stehenden und zugleich in einer Einheit und Idee wurzelden Reich, -- das Geistliche die Existenz seines Himmels zum irdischen Diesseits under zur gemeinen Weltlichkeit, in der Wirklichkeit und in der Vorstellung, degradiert, das Weltliche dagegen sein abstrakes Führsichsein zum Gedanken und dem Prinzipe vernünftigen Seins and Wissens zur Vernünftigkeit des Rechts und Gesetzes hinaufbildet ist an sich der Gegensatz zur marklosen Gestalt geschwunden; die Gegenwart hat ihre Barbarei und unrechtiche Willkür, und die Wharheit hat ihr Jenseits und ihre zufällige Gewalt abgestreift, so daß die wahrhafte Versöhnung objektiv geworden ... Grundlinien §360

I am not claiming this is definite insofar as again the question is whether Hegel thinks that this only occurs when the state is actualized, but if he thinks he has grasped the concept of the state without its actuality (i.e., with what is presented in this text), then there's a problem with that claim in the Hegelian system. To reword that, this passage suggests either that

  1. Hegel thinks that he understand the concept of the state


  1. Hegel thinks that he does not understand the concept of the state

IF 1, then the state is actual because it cannot be understood as pure ideality. And it would follow Hegel thinks he's at the end of history -- since the content of §360 requires that.

IF 2, then Hegel's got a potential problem in that his philosophy has become merely speculative rather than concrete, and we cannot trust the deliverances of Grundlinien to be deliverances of Reason [Vernunft]...

Peperzak argues that this is not a triumphalism about Hegel's present for two reasons. First, he points out that for Hegel there is an "'infinite' difference between objective spirit and absolute spirit (Enc A 305 & R)" (Peperzak Modern Freedom, p. 614). On this feature, the ending describes absolute spirit whereas the text that comes before is about objective spirit (that presumably is not yet absolute). Second, Peperzak sees this as an abrupt ending that does not follow immediately from the rest of the text. On this reading, Hegel fudges on the meaning of "world history" (Perperzak p. 615). But confusingly, Peperzak explains that the §356ff provides a condensed version of Hegel's philosophy of history which "indicates overall synthesis that has been realized, despite all lingering forms of injustice that continue to plague the world" (Peperzak pp. 616-7).

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    Afaik it has been argued (and I agree) that the statement that the Prussian constitutive monarchy is the highest realisation of the concept of law (the context this quote stands in), is hardly theoretically founded. It is to please politics and a product of historical scepticism towards democracy (see question on Kant and being one's own master). – Philip Klöcking Aug 13 '17 at 21:22
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    An even more explicit evidence given for the opposite is the ending of Geschichte der Philosophie, where Hegel humbly states:"The world spirit has now arrived at this point. The final philosophy is the result of all that have gone before... A new epoch has arisen in the world. It appears that world history has now been successful in doing away with all foreign objective essences and finally is comprehending itself as absolute Spirit...". Maurer and Löwith give somewhat different interpretations, but both agree that this is more of an end-of-an-era than end-of-history. – Conifold Aug 18 '17 at 19:22
  • Maurer emphasizes "gone before" caveat on finality. Löwith is more generous in granting that Hegel's time is special because Spirit is self-comprehending for the first time in history. But even he points to Philosophie der Weltgeschichte, where Hegel wrote:"America is the land of the future, in it in the time lying before us... significance of the world history will be revealed... it is up to America to abandon the ground on which world history has hitherto been enacted... and as a country of the future, it is of no interest to us here, for prophecy is not the business of the philosopher". – Conifold Aug 18 '17 at 19:22
  • He makes similar statements about "Slavonic world" in a letter to von Yxkull. It seems to me that Hegel thought of his time as "consummation" of Christian era and of the Europian history, perhaps even end of philosophy (Harris). Looking into the future he expected history to depart from Europe to a new "ground", literally but also dialectically. So the only way to advance past the "comprehended" Prussian state was to have it Aufgehoben. But any speculation about that was to him no business of philosophy, not even his. – Conifold Aug 18 '17 at 19:55

The reference with the owl refers to the fact that the consciousness and the knowledge of history is completed after the events have taken place; at the end of an epoch, the spirit can gather itself, supervise them and make them parts of its consciousness. We are able to understand a historical period when we move outside of it and drawn to a new era.

History is about the past and has the present as a limit. The becoming in dialectics is spiral, a completion of a cycle is not an end but the start of a new dialectical movement. A progress that has reached its end but also has an infinite distance to go, the ultimate goal that has been realized, but which is far from its realization (expressions of the finite-infinity relationship in the sphere of history), inconsistencies arise only if we persist in a one-sided, non-dialectical conception of the ontological categories.

The removal of the finite-infinity contradiction, the overcoming of the romantic schism between the finite individuality and the infinite absolute, an infinite opposed to the finite falls into vicious infinity, the true infinity is a process in which infinity meets itself in its other. The historic present is an end to the historical movement, beyond which an infinitely wide future is being opened, when this end becomes a barrier, the philosophical conception of history is only possible as a lifting of the contradiction, as a point of completion, the present formulates a mediation request, allowing philosophical knowledge to develop a conceptual notion of its epoch.

The philosophical understanding of history is possible only after the French revolution, that is, from the historical beginning of the realization of freedom in the world. This does not mean that somewhere in the world, the course of the spirit or history reaches its end. The spirit realizes its purpose as it has been revealed, but this does not preempt its future activity. The spirit is not overwhelmed, it is not exhausted and does not seek the bliss of immobility.


Reason in History (prolegomena P. Thanasas)

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    Interesting in its own right (I agree that the sort of history we do is largely a factor of Hegel's work on the philosophy of history), but none of this answers my question about whether Hegel believed he was at the culmination of history. (Note the lack of references to Hegel, also note that Hegel lived through and after the french revolution). – virmaior Jul 20 '17 at 14:21
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    John Am's interpretation (The owl flies at the end of each epoch) was the way I was taught about Hegel's transcendentalism, dialectic reasoning, and the owl, in my undergraduate years. Since Hegel said history repeats itself, I did not expect Hegel's owl will have a final flight. – Nanhee Byrnes PhD Jul 21 '17 at 13:52
  • @NanheeByrnesPhD I don't remember the Hegel part of history of philosophy from my undergraduate, but the idea that Hegel think's there's no end of history (even as a eschatological object) seems hard to square with both his logic and the more familiar (to most) Phenomenology's account of absolute knowledge... – virmaior Jul 24 '17 at 4:51
  • All my understanding of Hegel is through undergraduate lectures and secondary readings and bumper sticker type Hegel quotes, meaning I have no position. I was taught that Hegel held a view similar to eternal recurrence. I also remember reading that Hegel thought Napoleon I was the Zeitgeist of his epoch, but did not think his epoch was the final stage, given that the dialectic reasoning (i.e., history) would continue indefinitely. I – Nanhee Byrnes PhD Jul 24 '17 at 5:31
  • @NanheeByrnesPhD That is interesting. The Napoleon bit is roughly true as far as I can tell, but that's because he thinks Spirit uses certain heros to usher in a new era of spirit. / The eternal recurrence seems like back-reading to me. The entire question which I'm seeing some dispute about in the literature is whether Hegel thinks he's captured (at least in outline) the science of logic -- which would imply based on his views that absolute spirit is close at hand (since it is is there when thought thinks itself with all of its distinctions). – virmaior Jul 24 '17 at 8:07

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